Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On This Day Love is Permitted: A Sermon

On This Day Love Is Permitted
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 20th, 2011
Second Sunday of Lent

Gospel of Jesus 10:1-1

It so happened that Jesus was walking along through the grainfields on the Sabbath day, and his disciples began to strip heads of grain as they walked along. And the Pharisees started to argue with him: “See here, why are they doing what’s not permitted on the Sabbath day?”

And Jesus says to them:

The Sabbath day was created for Adam and Eve,
Not Adam and Eve for the Sabbath day.
So, the son of Adam lords it even over the Sabbath day.

Then he went back to the synagogue, and a fellow with a crippled hand was there. So they keep an eye on him, to see whether he would heal the fellow on the Sabbath day, so they could denounce him. And he says to the fellow with the crippled hand, “Get up here in front of everybody.” Then he asks them, “On the Sabbath day is it permitted to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”

But they maintained their silence. And looking right at them with anger, exasperated at their obstinacy, he says to the fellow, “Hold out your hand!”

He held it out and his hand was restored.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 51, 53. Mark 2:23-24, 27-28; 3:1-5; Matthew 12:1-2, 8-13; Luke 6:1-2, 5-10



Every now and then I come down with religion envy.

Religion envy is the experience of wishing one was of a different religion.
I wish I were Buddhist then I could do that.
Or, if I were Wiccan, I could do that!
I went to a Roman Catholic high school. I was a Protestant. In fact, a low-level Protestant at that. I envied all the cool stuff that the Catholic faith was about. The statues, the history, the secret handshakes and genuflecting. I envied the practices associated with the various seasons and holy days of the year such as Lent. We plain old Baptists didn’t have any of that cool stuff.

The mainline Protestant church as a whole has been experiencing Roman envy. I think that is the reason we had all of this liturgical renewal in the 70s. Protestant clergy now follow the lectionary and have added bells and whistles from our past to worship over the last few decades.

Religion envy.

Whenever I get a chance to visit a synagogue (and that isn’t very often) I get Jewish envy.

I really like the concept of the Shabbat or the Sabbath. Shabbat begins at sunset, considered to be the beginning of the day. At a certain time in the service, worshipers turn to the rear of the hall and welcome the new day, the Shabbat, like a queen. It is a day of rest, holy rest from sundown to sundown.

As Jay Michaelson writes in an article about Shabbat:
Shabbat is a day of being, not doing….the rest of the week, we Jews are exhorted to improve the world, better ourselves, and provide for our extended families in whatever roles in which we find ourselves. But this day: just be. Serve God not in changing the world, but in relaxing into what’s already there.
I like that. In Creation Spirituality, Shabbat is the way of awe and wonder—the spiritual path of appreciation. Take it in and notice. That is holy rest. And we need it, don’t we?

Wendell Berry in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” writes about this holy rest:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their lights. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The first chapter of the Bible is about the Shabbat. The story of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh is a “just so story” to explain why we keep the Sabbath. Over 100 years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a number of delightful “just so stories” to explain how animals received their characteristics. How the leopard got his spots and why the rhinoceros has loose skin.

Why do we rest on the Sabbath? Sit down and let me tell you a story.
“When God began creating the heavens and the earth…”
…and we settle in for a good story about how we can make sense and experience joy in this strange and disconnected existence.

It is the first story in the Bible. Keeping Sabbath was and still is obviously quite important if the story of the creation of the universe justifies it. It is hard to imagine a more authoritative “just so story” than that.

It is not hard to imagine how guidelines would develop over time to regulate the practice of Sabbath keeping. What to do what not to do, what to do in this situation, in that crisis, under these circumstances. One can imagine that there might have been debate and disagreement over interpretation.

How do we remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy?

I have religion envy for Sabbath Day. Sunday church isn’t quite the same. In modern times, there appears to be no rest at all. We are constantly going. That may be why we get sick. Just need a rest.

When I was in seminary I worked all nights at the local Mobil station and convenience store pumping gasoline. I noticed that there were no locks on the door. It wasn’t because in New Jersey everyone is trustworthy. It is because the store never closed. There is no need for a lock if you are open 24/7 and never close the door.

No Sabbath for Mobil Oil.

There are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. One is found in Exodus chapter 20. The other is in Deuteronomy chapter 5. Scholars think that the list in Deuteronomy is older. The one in Exodus was written by the same folks who put together the first creation story. We call that author the Priestly author or “P” for short. “P” made his contribution during or shortly after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century. A very creative writer, “P” made the case for the Sabbath to be a way to keep one’s identity in a strange land. We no longer have the temple, but we can still keep Shabbat.

The version in Exodus explains why we keep the Sabbath, by referring to the creation story:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
In Deuteronomy, the reason given is because of slavery. The Lord who rescued you commands you to keep the Sabbath day.
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
The Sabbath is connected with justice. You give your animals and “your slaves” and the immigrants a day of rest so they “may rest as well as you.” When work was done sunup to sundown every day, often on behalf of another, a day of rest would be most welcome.

One can imagine that the Sabbath Day was hard-earned. Despite how the Bible tells the story, rules don’t just magically appear on stone tablets from the finger of God. They are the result of experience.

The Sabbath in ancient times, like the 40 hour week in modern times, was the result of a great deal of politicking and struggle against oppressive powers. The rules regarding Sabbath observances were the result of blood on every page. The Sabbath for workers is sacred and holy. The Sabbath is about justice for all creation. Don’t mess with it.

So Jesus comes along with his band of brigands and starts plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. They are harvesting. The poor were allowed to glean. They are taking enough to eat. Yet this is work and it is expressly forbidden on the Sabbath. Those who criticize Jesus and his followers for working on the Sabbath are right. They are keepers of this tradition of justice.

Once people are allowed to break the rules, then what is to keep landowners from breaking the rules?
Once you start whittling away at the observances, it isn’t long before Sabbath becomes optional and then not practiced at all. And then, you poor schleps only will have yourselves to blame when you are pumping gas day and night seven days a week for less than subsistence wages at your local Mobil station.

Sabbath observance is not simply an archaic religious blue law that the pious impose on the rest of us. From its foundation, it is a matter of justice. Holy rest for God’s creatures. The question for Jesus was not whether to observe the Sabbath, but how do we observe the Sabbath.

The argument between Jesus and his opponents has to do with its meaning and practice. I used to think that these passages about Jesus and the Sabbath were about Jesus doing away with these Jewish rules, because he is, well, Jesus, second person of the Trinity, Light from Light, the Messiah, Christ, Son of God, and so on. That has been pretty much standard Christian fare. The old covenant has been superseded by the new covenant in the person of Jesus Christ.

I don’t think of it that way any longer. I think Jesus was a human being. He was a Jew and an observant Jew at that. He didn’t do away with the Sabbath or with anything. As any good teacher of the law, he reminded people what the Sabbath was about. He reminded them to return to justice and compassion.

When Jesus argues with his opponents over this we shouldn’t think he is arguing with Judaism. These characters such as the Pharisees and Scribes are foils in the gospels. Any Jewish rabbi would agree with Jesus that the Sabbath was created for the Human Being.

Walter Wink in his book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man, says that Jesus wasn’t elevating himself above the Sabbath. He isn’t saying he is above the law because he is “God” nor did he elevate humanity as such above the Sabbath.

Wink interprets the phrase the “son of man” as the Human Being. The Human Being (with a capital “H” and a capital “B”) is an archetype for the authentic human. The Human Being is the Divine within each of us. The human that is image of God. The human being who incarnates love.

Jesus is saying the Human Being is the Lord of the Sabbath. The human that acts from deep compassion is the authentic human. It is because of deep compassion and justice that we have the Sabbath in the first place—to offer holy rest.

This is risky. It allows for freedom. It is easier to have rules that we woodenly obey than to be encouraged to develop that kind of authenticity and freedom. The Human Being is not satisfied with rules as such. The Human Being asks why we have these rules and who do they serve and how can we interpret and apply them to serve that highest impulse.

When Jesus heals on the Sabbath he is demonstrating that highest impulse, compassion and love. It is because he loves that he heals.

On the Sabbath, we are invited to observe a holy rest. In our modern times, when busyness comes at us 24/7 we have to be creative and find opportunities to make space for ourselves so we can be and not do. Since Sabbath is about justice and compassion for all creatures, we are obligated to see that our neighbor is not so stressed serving our needs that he or she does not get holy rest.

I have religious envy for the Shabbat. I don’t have to switch religions to observe. Again, from Jay Michaelson:
Shabbat is a day of being, not doing….the rest of the week, we Jews are exhorted to improve the world, better ourselves, and provide for our extended families in whatever roles in which we find ourselves. But this day: just be. Serve God not in changing the world, but in relaxing into what’s already there.
But even then, if we must do on the Sabbath, then do love.

Love is permitted.

Amen

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